Women and Religion – Learning from Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is beautiful. Its got it all. Beaches, hills, forests, culture. All of it. Just like Pakistan. But unlike Pakistan, its also a tourist destination. Visiting and travelling in Sri Lanka, it really stands out that Sri Lanka prospers by respecting its women and its religious diversity.

Coming from Pakistan, it strikes you. Women are everywhere. On trains, rickshaws, walking unchaperoned on the streets. Everywhere. And no one minds. Strange. Caught an impromptu group of teenages, young men and women break dancing on the sidewalk just outside the train station. There was a huge crowd around. Some cheering, some filming with their phones, others simply watching or cheering. Not one jeer, no frothing at the mouth at the moral decay at display. On the train and then on our public bus in Colombo, women sat in all locations. There wasn’t even a “women’s only” section. No one teased or misbehaved. Oh that and women sit on motorcycles normally. Not in the sack of potatoes style you see in Pakistani cities (but curiously, not so much in Pakistani villages).

Makes me wonder that perhaps this extra space for Sri Lankan women is not what leads to their being vulnerable to disrespect and jeers that we see for their Pakistani counterparts foolish enough to come into public spaces without a chadar, dopatta, hijab or naqab. Maybe its something else. Like the men in the society expectating women to behave in this way. And if they dont, then they will pay a price.Some will be jeered, others physically beaten, acid thrown upon or simply killed for not listening to their male handlers. Kind of like the protection money that store owners have to pay in Karachi if they dont want their shops vandalised by their “protectors”. Makes you wonder if this “chadar and chardiwari” business is a protection racket after all.

The other thing is that you see are the mosques, churches, hindu and buddhist temples all over the place. They are the best kept buldings in their neighbourhoods, as places of worship tend to be. And if you talk to the average person on the street, they are extremely respectful of religious differences. We passed a mosque near iftar where cars were badly parked causing a traffic jam. The taxi driver told us that this happens at iftar and around Juma prayers and while normally it would result in fines for blocking the traffic (this was near the presidential palace) but for these times (iftar and juma prayers) the police make an exception. For all I can tell, religious diversity is not only tolerated, it is part of the culture.

I wonder why Sri Lanka has adopted gender and religious tolerance when we lost it. Even in the middle east, you find all kinds of diversity tolerated in Dubai. Is it because they need to attract foriegners; and not so in Saudi Arabia which draws its wealth from under the ground and where a single family and its friends rule a population of 30 million people. But we are not rich in Pakistan. We havent harvested our natural resources. We even go out of our way to discourage businesses. So may be its time to ponder, if our cultural obscurantism is meant to keep the control of a few over the many. And if so who and why do the rest of us allow it.

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